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Exquisite Corpses


Last night, per usual, I was glued to the couch for the new episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.” One of the finalists in the Champions Round is Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia and the Art Institute’s own Terzo Piano, the restaurant on the third floor of the Modern Wing. Each episode features two challenges, a short “quick fire” challenge and then the longer elimination challenge, in which losing chefs get booted off the show. Though Tony’s team lost the elimination challenge, he survived to cook another day and we can expect to see him next week.

Last night’s quick fire challenge, though, really sparked my interest. It was a tag team challenge. The chefs were divided into two teams of four. Their assignment: cook something. Not so tough, right? Wrong. Because each of the chefs would get one ten-minute stint at the stove. Before their turn, they would be blindfolded and weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone else cooking. So the first chef would pick ingredients and get things started; after ten minutes, the second chef, who had been blindfolded, would have to assume the station, try and figure out where the first chef had been going, and develop the dish; and so on through the four chefs.

Watching all the blindfolded chefs stand around and wait their turn reminded me of some of my favorite works hanging in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing: the “exquisite corpses” of the surrealists. The exquisite corpse was essentially a high-stakes parlor game played, in our case, by such artists as Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, André Breton, and Max Morise. A piece of paper would be folded into sections, like a fan. One artist would take one of the sections and start a drawing, then fold the section over and hand it over to the next person, who would pick up a line from the preceding drawing, without seeing the context for it, and make their own drawing. The result is a four-section drawing that hangs together but isn’t really connected.

One of the works currently hanging in the Modern Wing is an Exquisite Corpse of 1928 by Man Ray, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, and Max Morise, part of the Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection. A highly stylized couple kissing in profile melts into a biomorphic shape that resolves into a hand holding a gun, leading in turn to an abstract line drawing, the bottom arc of which crushes a prone naked man. You can still see the folds in the paper that shaped the sheet into blank segments, lending the drawing an immediacy and vitality.

The name itself is apparently derived from a word-based version of the same activity, with the random selection of exquisite and corpse appearing together and then memorialized in a late 1930s dictionary of surrealism.

While the surrealists didn’t wind up with fish stew, as last night’s contestants did, they would probably approve of the tag team challenge. But they would probably like it more if the chefs had to use fundamentally inedible ingredients.

Man Ray, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, and Max Morise. Exquisite Corpse, 1928. Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection, 105.1991. © 2008 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.